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Mike Leigh’s Five-Minute Films and Finding the Rhythm of Whiffed Out

Celebrating its Online Premiere over at No Budge, Jay Giampietro’s Whiffed Out is a throwback rendition of a neurotic New Yorker’s summer of suck. The short film, an official selection of Maryland Film Festival and BAMcinemaFest, derives its humor from situational minutiae, and in the below guest post, Giampietro discusses his source of inspiration in the five-minute film series of Mike Leigh. Sarah Salovaara

I was turned onto the Mike Leigh five-minute films by Ronnie Bronstein about a year and a half ago, and even though I am obsessed with Leigh and had seen every one of his features (I used to fall asleep to a VHS dub of his obtuse office comedy Who’s Who regularly in 2003), the shorts were a revelation. He had intended to make a couple dozen of them and have characters and situations start overlapping eventually, but once he made the first handful, five I think, the producers of the series wanted to turn it into an omnibus sort of thing and bring other directors on and Leigh lost interest.

I’ve done five shorts now and one of the most challenging things while I’m conceiving them has been pacing the storytelling. Features sort of have this predesigned idea of rhythm based on the notion that a feature is at least 65 or so minutes, usually 90-ish but a short can be anything: 45 seconds or 18 minutes or whatever, which is always a challenge in terms of how to approach the story.

The first short in Leigh’s series (and the first one I saw) is The Birth of the 2001 FA Cup Final Goalie and it covers about a year or so in the life of a youngish married couple as they ease into the idea of becoming parents — at the football-loving father’s behest. I can’t recall seeing a short prior to that which dealt with the passage of time in such an economical way and to such great effect, and I set out to do that with Whiffed Out — cover an event that plays out over the course of an the entire summer and use the way a main character’s life is disrupted over a longer period of time as his driving conflict — all the while trying to make the movie as economical as possible, although I wound up with a 12 minute movie in the end.

The second in the series, Old Chums, deals with an overbearing guy delaying his old buddy with banal conversation as he tries to get out of his housing complex and make it to a movie on time. What I love about this one, as with many of the early Leigh features, is the comedy that comes from a lack of self-awareness and those cringeworthy but true moments when people are either unwilling or incapable of living up to the social contract of day to day affairs. Pretty much every scene in Whiffed Out deals with this dynamic — from Phillip who forces his old friend Keith to look after his bike, to Rick obviously misinterpreting a conversation with Smokey from the Pizza Store into thinking he had a concrete offer for a job and then refusing to accept “no” for an answer. There are small swindles between friends and acquaintances in a lot of Leigh’s work: I always think about the character Stephen Rea plays in Life is Sweet, Patsy the lush, who pawns off a broken down food cart van on his longtime buddy, Andy (Jim Broadbent). That moment when you agree to get involved in something to help out a friend, even though your gut instinct is telling you it could be a bad idea, was a huge influence on Whiffed Out.

The third in the series, Probation, is about a teenager dealing with the ineffective bureaucracy of the probation process after he gets arrested for having “a dangerous weapon” — an afro comb — in a dispute over a cup of tea, followed by his first meeting with his probation officer. Leigh takes on this situation in a couple of other movies: Meantime has a classic scene of an educated social worker coming to check on a family on the dole and living in public housing, and how the social worker stumbles into condescension without awareness. The way Leigh handles these situations was a huge influence on the scene between Rick and his social worker, Jeff, when he’s reminded (for the umpteenth time) that he has to find a real job in order to maintain his place in the court-appointed charity apartment for troubled men — places which do still exist, as hard as that may be to believe, in this post-Bloomberg cashed out version of NYC.

Leigh does a terrific job in Probation of portraying how the probation officer is so numbed by his experiences and responsibilities that he is incapable of truly dealing on a personal level with the teenager he’s supposed to be helping. I saw that energy as a driving force for Jeff, the social worker. He’s just sick of having to talk to these hapless ne’er-do-wells and he won’t even take Rick’s intention to work in the pizzeria seriously. Although, on the flip side, I always saw Rick as a guy who is just trying to milk the system and do only the minimum of what is required in order to maintain any benefits he’s receiving, and doing a poor job of masking his scammer nature. In life, everyone has their reasons!

On a visual level, the direct language of the camera and the compositions, along with a heavy reliance on close-ups, and the naturalistic pace to the editing was also a huge influence on me. Like Leigh, I didn’t want there to be an awareness of a stylistic hand at work: I just wanted the audience to focus on the characters and the performances.

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